Whisper's C4 F1 highlights package shines in new era

Earlier this week, news broke that Whisper would continue to produce Channel 4’s Formula 1 free-to-air coverage in 2020, as the broadcaster enters a new three-year deal with Sky Sports to air the sport.

2019 was a year of change for the UK’s free-to-air viewers of F1, as fans accustomed themselves to life without live action. Only the British Grand Prix aired live on free-to-air television, with every other race airing exclusively live on Sky.

Across the year, Whisper produced highlights of every qualifying session and race, as well as live coverage of the Silverstone round. Including commercials, Channel 4’s highlights package consisted of 90 minutes for qualifying and 120 minutes for the race. Slicing off commercials takes both totals down to around 72 and 96 minutes respectively, giving fans a chance to view the action.

John Curtis led Whisper’s F1 production team for the first-time, replacing Mark Wilkin as their producer.

How well have Whisper managed to manoeuvre the obstacles placed in their way this year? We look at how their F1 coverage has fared…

A variety of vantage points on offer…
Although Channel 4 did not air live coverage throughout 2019, Whisper played to their own storytelling strengths with high quality VT’s.

The opening vignette for their Abu Dhabi race day coverage featured a powerful voice over of six-time Drivers’ Champion Lewis Hamilton telling his story, as viewers watched Hamilton tackling the final lap of the US Grand Prix from his helmet-facing camera angle. It was simple, yet innovative, unusual, and effective.

Whisper’s VT’s stretched across the full grid, meaning that fans still saw the personalities behind the helmets even if Channel 4 were unable to offer live coverage outside of Silverstone. Steve Jones’ sit-down interview with Alfa Romeo driver Kimi Raikkonen in Canada helped get beneath the bones of Raikkonen’s character and was one highlight of their year.

There is no doubt that losing Karun Chandhok to Sky hurt Channel 4’s coverage on the technical front. But, with only Silverstone airing live on Channel 4, his loss was not as significant as it could have been. Channel 4 and Whisper covered up his departure through rotating their punditry throughout the season (a possible result of restrictions from a personnel quota perspective).

Pleasingly, Whisper utilised their complete cast of on-air talent during their pre- and post-race programming (including new for 2019 podcast On the Marbles), from Mark Webber, through to Billy Monger, and onto Ben Edwards.

Edwards’ own post-race segment, aptly titled “Ben’s Bible” helped shine a light on the midfield teams, wrapping up stories from pit lane. It was awesome to see Whisper use Edwards more – his broadcasting talent extends far behind the commentary box, and it is only right that we see him utilised more on-screen.

Monger excelled in his first season with Channel 4, gelling straight into his role with the team. As a fan, you could feel a natural on-screen connection between the likes of Monger, George Russell and Lando Norris, all young Brits, and that made the interview segments much easier to watch in my view.

Throughout 2019, Whisper strived to show viewers more than just the paddock, taking advantage of the fact that they were not live on-air, whether through choice or not is a different question.

For example, Whisper presented the Chinese Grand Prix qualifying opening segment from the smog of the Shanghai city, taking viewers to the heart of the city. Sky do not have the same luxury for good reason, they need to be in the paddock surroundings for their live broadcasts, airing their live programming outside of the paddock would make little sense.

…but inflexibility hampers programming
For all the effort that Whisper went into to make their programming distinctive, and they did a good job at that, the restrictions in their contract meant that things were perhaps not as great as they could have been.

The race edits were generally slick across the season, but inflexibility did not help. Each race had a 45-minute edit allocated to it, meaning that the likes of France were on an equal billing as Germany, even though the latter was far more exciting than the former.

Over on the BBC’s weekly Premier League football highlights programme Match of the Day, highlights of a game can vary from anywhere between five to ten minutes, although admittedly that is within the context of one show. But it shows that flexibility does exist within the remit of a highlights-based sporting contract.

Is there a world where Sky require Channel 4 to air an average of 45 minutes per race across the season, but ‘flexed’ that so that they can air between 35 and 55 minutes each race?

This would allow Channel 4 to air a 55-minute edit for Germany and a 35-minute edit for France. Each would still need to fit in a 96-minute slot (excluding commercials), but it at least gives Channel 4 flexibility. And, if Channel 4 make a wrong decision and the last few races of the season turn out to be more (or less) exciting – tough.

Two other aspects that would improve the highlights edit itself would be the ability to play out interviews in a picture-in-picture format during the race. If a midfield driver retires from the race, it makes sense from a storytelling standpoint to play out the post-race interview there and then, as opposed to after the race.

The spoiler previews prior to each ad-break did not sit well with me either, although I understand the logic in it to keep the audience hooked for later in the race.

At several races in 2019, Whisper opted to present their commentary off-tube, but not as you would expect. Whilst co-commentator David Coulthard remained on-site, Edwards stayed back at Whisper’s base in Ealing, which feels like an odd way to deal with the situation. If you want to commentate off-tube, fine, but at least go the full way instead of a 50/50 approach.

The Canadian Grand Prix weekend saw this scenario unfold, but the delay between Coulthard and Edwards was significant, leading to disjointed commentary, as if someone stitched it together from two separate sources. Whilst of some frustration, if the alternative was having no Edwards at all, then maybe this is the best of a bad situation.

I could criticise Whisper for other elements of their highlights programming: no grid interviews, and few post-race driver interviews. But, as a broadcaster and production company, you can only do what the contract stipulates. And, as we well know (Silverstone aside), Channel 4 were banned from the grid, and forced to take Sky’s post-session interviews from the interview pen.

Channel 4’s Formula 1 viewing figures may have dropped significantly on 2018, but that in my opinion is not a reflection on the quality of programming that Whisper have aired this year.

There are things that could change, both inside and outside of Whisper’s production contract. But overall, free-to-air viewers of Formula 1 in 2019 have had a high-quality highlights package that they can rely on.

The situation is not ideal for those without Sky, but it also serves as a reminder that, without Whisper on-board, the package on offer could be significantly worse.

For the next few years, expect the status quo to remain – with Channel 4 set to remain in the F1 fold until at least 2022.

Contribute to the running costs of Motorsport Broadcasting by donating via PayPal

Whisper fends off competition to retain C4 F1 production contract

Whisper will continue to produce Channel 4’s Formula 1 coverage in 2020, Motorsport Broadcasting can confirm.

The production house, led by ex-BBC F1 presenter Jake Humphrey, David Coulthard and Sunil Patel, has produced Channel 4’s offering since they entered the sport in 2016.

Following Sky’s successful bid to cover the sport exclusively from 2019, Channel 4 grabbed free-to-air highlights of every round and live coverage of the British Grand Prix – both elements sub-let from Sky.

Channel 4 accepted Whisper’s bid to produce their 2019 offering, and now the organisation will produce their 2020 coverage. Motorsport Broadcasting understands that Whisper fought off competition from North One Television to retain the production rights.

Neither Whisper or Channel 4 have made an official announcement, although industry magazine Broadcast are also reporting the news. 2020 is a big year for The Whisper Group, as they are also producing Channel 4’s Paralympics coverage from Tokyo.

The wording of the Formula 1 tender from Channel 4 meant that the number of interested parties would always be light on the ground.

Channel 4 stated that they would only consider proposals from parties with “extensive experience of production in the motor sport arena,” reducing the prospect of a new party entering the market.

Whisper qualify as the incumbent, whilst North One qualify having produced BT Sport’s MotoGP coverage since 2014, as well as collaborating with Aurora Media Worldwide on Formula E.

Given the positive reception to Whisper’s coverage of F1 on Channel 4, it is unsurprising that Channel 4 have maintained the status quo for 2020.

What is unclear is whether the production contract between Channel 4 and Whisper covers 2020 only, or whether it covers the full length of Channel 4’s deal with Sky until the end of 2022.

Barring an approach from Sky for any of their talent, it is highly likely that Whisper’s Formula 1 coverage on Channel 4 will have the same look and feel in 2020.

Expect Steve Jones to continue to front their coverage for his fifth season in F1, alongside the likes of Ben Edwards, David Coulthard and Mark Webber.

Contribute to the running costs of Motorsport Broadcasting by donating via PayPal

Motorsport Broadcasting: Your 2019 Verdict

The chequered flag has fallen on another year of Formula 1, and with it the end of the 2019 motor racing season.

Despite both MotoGP and F1 having a relatively predictable outcome, the journey to the destination has been enticing throughout. From the thrilling German Grand Prix on four wheels, to Alex Rins beating Marc Marquez at Silverstone by milometers on two wheels, there was something for everyone this year.

Off track, 2019 has been a year of change for fans of F1 in the UK. Live coverage of the sport aired exclusively on Sky Sports for the first time ever, following in the footsteps of MotoGP which moved to BT in 2014. Only the British Grand Prix aired live on free-to-air television.

In the social media space, F1 continues to make excellent strides in an ever-changing world, whilst others have had to rethink their strategy to work out how best to engage with their audience.

Now, Motorsport Broadcasting wants your opinion on the past twelve months. Which personality has shone in 2019 and deserves a bigger presence in 2020? What was the low-light from a broadcasting perspective for you this season? And, if there was one thing you could change next season, what would it be?

As always, the best thoughts will form an article on this site over the festive period.

Contribute to the running costs of Motorsport Broadcasting by donating via PayPal

Live coverage of F1 testing to return in 2020

Live coverage of Formula 1 pre-season testing will return in 2020, broadcaster Sky Sports has confirmed after a successful outing earlier this year.

Although Formula 1 themselves have yet to officially confirm the news, both Simon Lazenby and Ted Kravitz announced details to viewers watching Sky’s coverage of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The two confirmed that in-depth testing coverage will air live on Sky Sports F1, with Kravitz also referring to the post-session wrap-up show.

Earlier this year, testing aired live across F1 TV’s premium tier service and Sky Sports, to positive reviews, which has influenced the decision making process for 2020.

If 2019 is anything to go by, live coverage of the first Barcelona test from Wednesday 19th February to Friday 21st February is a certainty.

The question mark hangs over the second test a week later, which F1 opted not to cover live this year, and it remains unclear if F1 will extend their offering in 2020, or stick with the tried and tested 2019 approach.

Coverage performed solidly on Sky Sports back in February, peaking with 96,000 viewers according to overnight viewing figures in a slot that would have otherwise got zero on a normal weekday.

Contribute to the running costs of Motorsport Broadcasting by donating via PayPal